It is an ambitious, multi-billion kwacha initiative which has potential to transform Malawiâ€™s seasonal, rain-fed agriculture into an all-year-round irrigation based one. Three years since it was launched, how far has Malawi gone with the Green Belt Initiative? EPHRAIM NYONDO begins to explore in this firt part of the series.
Lichenza River does not just provide a dividing feature for Chiradzulu and Thyolo districts. It is a perennial river which, if well utilised, can as well be a dividing line between poverty and riches for thousands.
The rich and fertile land on its bank is wide and extensive. Shrubs and vegetation grow enviously as if carefully tamed. All over, you see green despite being a seasons of dry grass.
“This river is my gold, our gold here,” says Samuel Msomela, 31, from Siliya Village, T/A Nkalo, Chiradzulu.
Msomelaâ€”a farmer who is married and has two childrenâ€”has realised great fortunes, for years, from cultivating on the banks of the river. He grows a number of food crops: tomato, cabbage, onions, vegetables, maize and potatoes, among others.
“The farming is done year round. We donâ€™t stop. The river gives us water to irrigate the gardens with our watering cans. There is hardly a year I go without food. I take tomatoes, potatoes, sugar cane to the market, to make money,” he says while throwing grass to his herd of cattle.
He admits there has hardly been a year or a day his family went without food. He adds he always has money for new clothes, for better and well-balanced food, and also, for taking his wife and sons to better health-care services.
As he continues to throw grass to his herd of cattle while watching his three goats fight, Msomela looks vibrant. In fact, when he clears his throat, he speaks with authority. There is contentment in his voice.
The good thing is that it is not only he who feels that way. There are a number of locals cultivating on the banks of Lichenza River who share Msomelaâ€™s story.
“The worst thing that can happen to our village is to have this river dried up. That would be the end of us all,” says another local, John Amos, jokingly, as he shows me his vibrant green cabbage garden.
By the standards of their village, Amos and Msomela are quite well-to-do.
Green Belt Initiative
But what if the two stopped used watering canes to irrigate their gardens and adopt heavy machines to cultivate more water from Lichenza? What if they concentrated on a single crop, say tomato, and planted its high-yielding variety?
What if they stopped using hoes and used oxcarts; what if they used the best chemicals to and also be trained and empowered with modern faming skills to get the best out of their crop? What if there were larger markets for their produce so that they do not have to struggle where to sit by the road everyday and sell to motorists?
“If that were the case,” says Msomela: “I would build a big house, send my children to good schools, buy a car, and have more cows, then open my own dairy company and employ fellow villagers who cannot find work in the cities. Since this would happen to a number of farmers in this area, this village would develop into a town, bigger than Limbe.”
The glistening future Msomela sees of his village is possible.
It is possible because it is part of the countryâ€™s larger dream hatched by the departed leader, Bingu wa Mutharika.
“We will develop small-scale and large irrigation schemes along shores of Lake Malawi, Lake Chilwa and Shire River to help us cultivate all year around,” he said during the 2004 presidential inaugural address at Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre.
It was from those words that the Green Belt Initiative (GBI) was hatched.
The initiative aims to utilise the available abundant water resources in the country, which cover 21 percent of the countryâ€™s territorial area, and increase area under irrigation from 90 000 hectares to 400 000 hectares out of the potential one million hectares. The aim of GBI is not just to achieve sustainable food security but to increase productivity and incomes both at household and national levels for economic growth and development.
And these prospects spring from the fact that Malawiâ€™s economy is still agro-based. Agriculture accounts for more than 80 percent of export earnings, contributes 36 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and provides a livelihood for 85 percent of the population.
Subsidised farm inputs
Smallholder farmers, like Msomela and Amos, contribute about three-quarters of agricultural production with cropping systems dominated by a maize-based rain-fed cropping system.
Between 2006 and 2010, the Farm Input Subsidy Programme, a symbol of what a slight change to the countryâ€™s agricultural system can do, brought in unprecedented wonders to the economy.
Agriculture growth accelerated from around four percent in 2004/05 to around 14 percent in 2006/07 and to around 13 percent in 2008/09. Within the same period, the economy grew by 8.6 percent in 2007, 9.7 percent in 2008 and 7.6 percent in 2009.
“The Greenbelt Initiative, therefore, aims at consolidating the gains made from these interventions by intensifying irrigation farming, livestock development and fisheries development among others,” reads the GBI concept paper released in January last year.
But how far has the initiative gone on the ground?
“Early last year, our village head told us not to cultivate along the banks of Lichenza River,” says Amos.
The reason was that government had started constructing the dam along the river. Today, an unfinished dam lies along the river.
Lichenza Dam is one of the five dams that Finance Minister Ken Lipenga, in an interview with Weekend Nation in March this year, said has been completed under GBIâ€™s water retention programme.
Others include Livuwo Dam in Nkhata Bay, Luvwere Dam in Mzimba, Chivu Dam in Thyolo and Nankhurukutu Dam in Mulanje.
The dams, according to President Joyce Bandaâ€™s State-of-the-Nation Address, are part of the 2 000 hectares which have been developed in the 2011/2012 budget for irrigation both for commercial and smallholder farmers.
“This brings the total of land under irrigation in the country to 92 326 hectares. Smallholder beneficiaries increased from 356 728 in the 2010/2011 fiscal year to 365 844 in 2011/2012 fiscal year,” she said.
The President added that government, in the same 2011/2012 fiscal year, procured 6 000 hectares from Press Agriculture in Salima which is called Chikhwawa Green Belt Irrigation Scheme.
“The design phase for this scheme is completed while the construction phase for 530 hectares commenced and will be ready for irrigation farming by September 2012.
“Procurement processes for the design and supervision consultancies for proposed Malombe and Nthola-ilora-Ngosi irrigation schemes are underway. The designs for the initial 240 hectares of Chilengo site under the Shire Valley Scheme are under review,” she said.
Surely, though slow and steady, the GBI is taking off and locals, despite not being sure of what is happening, have began to see the changes.
“I have a feeling that this dam [Lichenza] will increase my fortunes and change our community. We are just keeping our fingers crossed,” says Msomela.
â€”In part II: How much do locals, the very people GBI targets to change, know about the initiative?